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Shine A Light

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When I was about 14 years old, I joined my school’s Army Cadet corps. It was attractive because I’d heard they did cool things out in the bush. I was having a bit of a hard time at boarding school, and I thought it would a great respite.

It wasn’t what I expected. The rule-bound hierarchy, the command and control culture, and the endless, monotonous routines of learning how to march in formation and shining your boots until you could see your face in them was not what I signed up for. For a boy seeking freedom from the confines of boarding school, it wasn’t cutting it. I felt small, unseen and unheard. In many ways, it was worse than school.

However, I chose to stick it out for a year. We actually did do some cool things in the bush, like learning how hike from A to B though rugged terrain using only a compass, map and your common sense. How to light a fire with no smoke so you could stay undetected. But, for the vast majority of the time, it was spit, polish and parade grounds, all the while being bossed around by a bunch of older boys and teachers. Blah.

Towards the end of the year, we had to decide whether we wanted to stay on the following year. A simple choice for me: “No”. Yes, I had learned some good stuff, but the way they did things in the corps was not for me.

A few days later, one of the senior officers came to me and said he was surprised and disappointed that I hadn’t chosen to stay on. He said that they saw me as leadership material. Would I reconsider?

This came as a huge surprise to me. When and how did they see my leadership potential? I had been given very little feedback during the course of the year, other than that I could shine my boots better. I thought they didn’t see me at all. To my mind, my leaving would be of no great consequence to them. And here they are telling me that I’m leadership material?

Of course, it was too late. I’d emotionally checked out a long time ago. There was nothing he could say or do to convince me to stay.

That incident has stayed with me ever since, and has fundamentally shaped my approach to leadership. A core responsibility of leadership is to shine a light on people and show them their potential. Especially if they’re not seeing it themselves. It is nourishment for the spirit. It is a catalyst for confidence and builds courage. When we fail to do this, we not only do them a disservice, we also do ourselves and our organisations one.

Most people think that shining a light is about giving positive feedback. That’s part of it. However the real gift is to let someone know the potential and power you see in them. Whenever someone has done that for me, my self-belief soars and the world opens up in front of me.

Where and how are you shining a light? Where and how could you shine it more?

Some guidelines:

  • For everyone you work with (not just your direct reports), find out something interesting about them.
  • Be actively curious about what makes them tick. Find out what drives them. Ask them.
  • Let them know what impact they are having – on the mission, on the team, on you.
  • Let them know the potential and possibility you see for them.
  • Work with them to set stretch goals that are important to them.
  • Recognise effort, and achievement. Let them know you see their progress.

If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of these simple things, you’ll know how much they mean, and what they do for motivation, engagement and discretionary effort, let alone your relationship with them.

It’s not rocket science. It’s uncommon sense.

Make it common sense. Shine a light. Every day.

 

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Photo: Digby Scott

The Three Letter Word

But

Lurking in our language, there’s a number of naughty words that we have conveniently categorised as “Four Letter Words”. You know what I’m talking about.

Most of us typically utter these offensive tones to express our dislike of something, or someone. If you’ve ever been the unlucky “someone” on the receiving end of such an outburst, you’ll know that it tends to cause offence, and doesn’t do much for the relationship you might have with that person.

So we tend, as a rule, to avoid using Four Letter Words, at least if we’re interested in building a positive, trusting relationship with the people we deal with in day to day life.

Unfortunately, there’s a “Four Letter Word” that has been more cunning than most. Like a computer virus, it has disguised itself as a benign part of our language, embedded itself in our communication system, and is causing havoc without us even consciously knowing it. Whoever invented this word was sly indeed – they disguised it as a three letter word, while having the same offensive force as the common, garden, four-letter variety.

The word? “But”

It shows up everywhere. Once I began to notice the “But” phenomenon, it appeared incessantly. The first time I tuned into it was on the radio, when I heard a prominent politician saying something along the lines of “we have consulted with the local residents on this issue, and we fully understand where they are coming from. But our advice from the experts is that …blah blah blah…We will give both sides of the story full consideration blah blah blah and come to a final decision.”

My translation? “We are siding with the experts on this one, and we don’t value the residents’ point of view.”

Words create worlds. Our language we choose to use betrays our thinking. What the use of “but” said to me in the above example was that this person’s mind was already made up, and he was going with the experts. On the surface it may appear that he was being objective and impartial. At a deeper level, if you really listen, you can hear the real thinking and intention behind his talk. All because of one little three letter word.

In many cases, the use of “but” says “Ignore everything I have just said, this is what I really mean.”

Further examples:

“You did well in covering all the relevant points in that last report, but you need to work on cutting it down” (Translation: “Your report was too waffly and I think you need to be more concise.”)

“I love you, but your nose hairs are too long” (Translation: “I don’t find you attractive right now.”)

The upshot? We often trigger negative responses in other people, either at a conscious or subconscious level, when we unwittingly use the word “but”. Responses that could include defensiveness, frustration on outright anger. In trying to be nice, in attempting to be seen to be offering a balanced view, things can may not go as well as you’d hoped. You may not get the buy in you’ve been hoping for. In my experience, people, at some level, get a sense that you are not saying what you really want to say. Trust, at some level, breaks down.

By the way, if you really want to break down trust, forget “but”, and try “however” – and watch the relationship dissolve before your eyes…

So what do you do if you want to get your point across and maintain the relationship? Fortunately, there’s an easy solution. An antivirus, if you like. And it comes in the form of another three letter word.

That word? “And”

Try replacing “But” with “And” in any of the three examples above. Consider this: “We have consulted with the local residents on this issue, and we fully understand where they are coming from. And our advice from the experts is that …” Does that sound like a more truthful, and potentially more effective way, to building trust and credibility with the audience?

The trick is that “and” has the effective of building on what has been said previously. “But” tends to negate. The speaker is genuinely heard to be offering a more balanced point of view when they use “and” rather than “but”.

You might take a moment to reflect on how often you’ve used the three letter word today. My guess is, that if you have, it hasn’t been intentional. Most of the time, we say it without giving it a second, or even first, thought. And what effect does it have on your audience? What effect do you intend having?

 

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Fruitcakes Are Good For You

A couple of weeks ago, I got some feedback I didn’t want to hear. I’ve been working with a group of smart, ambitious, mid-career professionals over the past couple of months, teaching them strategies to define and maximise the next stage of their careers. I love this work, and I love working with those types of people. However, one of the challenges, for me at least, is that sometimes they can be pretty blunt.

Mid-way through our programme, participants were asked to complete a survey on how the process had been going. To my great delight, the vast majority of respondents were very happy and getting a lot of value. Except for one. An outlier who thought I was completely off the mark, teaching stuff way below their level, and that I needed to step it way up. Shudder. It was the first time I’d received feedback like that after working with many similar groups over the past five years. (more…)